The Happy Shake, a delicious, chocolaty crush, is filled with blueberries, cherries and a dab of raw honey along with some coconut oil. Maca, or Peruvian ginseng gives the concoction a nutritional bang that's somewhere between a pick-me-up and an aphrodisiac. Pitchforks of spinach fuel its antioxidant action. Fortified by the happiest food on the planet, raw cacao, the Happy Shake is meant to make good on its name.
Stacy Stowers partly credits this soft-serve knockoff for her recovery following 17 years of debilitating disease. At age 22, one year into relocating to Bakersfield, California, the daffodil-blond Texan began developing a raft of mysterious symptoms, from achy joints to fatigue. She was soon diagnosed with a fungal infection that's prevalent to the arid Southwest. The airborne spores of coccidioidomycosisaka valley fever nest in the lungs and ravage the immune system.
"I can really empathize with the elderly or with anyone who is homebound and dealing with chronic illness," said Stowers. "I was in constant pain and there were many days when I couldn't get out of bed. In the end my teeth started to crack and fall out -- not a good look. I really thought my life was over." It's difficult to imagine the creamy-completed, spritely 46 year old as ever having been anything but flourishing. 2007, while living in Chicago, a friend took her to a raw food restaurant. She was unconvinced by the cold kale salads and nut patés as the outside mercury plunged toward freezing. "I was not thrilled. I sat and drank lemon water." Yet the restaurant ran a detox program, and Stowers understood that it was "a place of healing."
She went home and googled "raw foods." Intrigued by the numerous claims of self-healing through raw food, she decided to give it a shot for a week, as a cleanse. Her menu consisted of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt; she drank only water. Out went anything that smacked of processing: soda, coffee, alcohol and all the prescription medications. Astonished that within seven days her pain had subsided and the fog began leaving her head, she realized she had to press on. "By day ten I was able to join my best friend in walking around Chicago. The only thing hurting were my smile muscles because I hadn't smiled that much in so long." Though Stowers cautions against going cold turkey without medical supervision, her resurrection was well under way.
On a recent afternoon, Stowers prepared her signature indulgence for me in her cheery Manhattan walkup a raw almond's throw from Gramercy Park. Into the Vitamix went a splash of filtered water and what looked like a salad. "The idea is to make green sludge," she announced in her sun-belt twang.
Next in was powdered maca followed by equal heaps of organic cocoa. "Maca has a nice malty, earthy flavor to it, so it combines well with the chocolate," mused Stowers. "Plus it's good for stamina, endurance and mental clarity."
Then came the berries. Her favorite combo is wild blueberries, cherries and strawberries -- frozen to give that soft-ice-cream texture, with the help of a couple of ice cubes. "You mostly want dark, wild blueberries because they're small and have a lot of deep, dark, rich pigment," she advised.
"We eat with our eyes first," Stowers declared. "Green smoothies don't do it for me." In the early days of revamping her diet, she'd blend up a thick slush as shown on YouTube. "It looked and tasted like my dad's freshly mowed lawn," she recalled with a grimace. "I don't want to eat shrubbery." That's when Stowers discovered maca, raw chocolate and those frozen berries.
"BLUE berries are what give the Happy Shake its chocolate-brown color," Stowers writes in Eat Raw Not Cooked. Published by Simon & Schuster, her debut cookbook was released on April 22, 2014 -- Earth Day. It includes a lesser recipe called The Mildly Amused Shake for tender sorts who are sensitive to the stimulants of cacao and maca.
The last ingredient you'd suspect of this Happy Shake is leafy greens. Try as I might, I couldn't detect the four cups of spinach lurking in my chocolate ambrosia. But after my first fudgy spoonful, I joined the ranks of leaf-eating herbivores who graze all the food in a patch for an energy rush.
Stowers kept a gull's eye on my progress. Her nickname was "the microwave bandit" during her (non)salad days in Corpus Christi. "I only knew about nuking one-minute oatmeal," she tsked. Before her transformation Stowers just read the back of a package for the calorie count, she explained. It never occurred to her to check the ingredients.
As a self-ordained ambassador of raw fare, Stowers has a challenge: real rawists don't eat anything cooked. Food can be heated to 118 degrees, but after that the natural enzymes begin breaking down and so does the approval of purists. Stowers still has a touch of the hellion from her small-town girlhood. Dogma isn't her style. Eat Raw, Not Cooked even has a chapter called "Things Get Heated." The free-thinking gastronome believes "a cold, raw diet is not easy for people to sustain, or necessary. We all need a little warmth to soothe our souls."
Her own quest for warmth led her to love and seafood. As the saga goes, the man who is now her husband ordered salmon on their first date. "It was the first time an animal source had come to my table in years," reminisced Stowers. "I ate all the fish and left the raw salad for my date." she grinned. These days organic salmon is a staple of their table -- served with raw romaine “chips.”
In 2010, Stowers embarked on a cross-country tour touting the healing powers of raw food. Now she runs a thriving business reforming the American diet, kitchen by kitchen. She spends one week in a private home, enlightening the family about raw foods and weaning them off processed and pesticide-sprayed foods. Some families want a nutritional assist while battling health crises, and others take a preventative approach, knowing that the traditional American diet is too acidic -- and not sufficiently alkaline -- to bode well for their longterm health.
"The day I show up, not everyone is excited," Stowers quipped. The notion of doing without can strike terror in her clients' hearts. "I've had outright rebellion from 14 year olds to 54 year olds, but it's always the same thing: within a couple of days we are in love." I asked for a recent example.
"One of my last families, in Texas, they meet me at the airport -- Hanks and Ginger Hanna. I haven't even gottten my luggage and Hanks says, 'I'm afraid I'm going to be hungry.' Those Texas boys, they like their BBQ! I'm thinking, Hanks needs meat and Ginger wants to do all this raw stuff. How do I bring everyone together, including their teenage son, who's also afraid I'm going to take his meat away? So the first night I'm there, I bring the fear down by serving what I call the Grass-fed Veggie Burger."
A bedrock of Stowers' method is to teach families how to include more raw food and upgrade what they're eating. She errs on the gentle side. After familiarizing herself with the Hanna's pantry and fridge, Stowers headed off to the market. To replace the antibiotic-laced beef, cottony buns and ketchup sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, she found organic, grass-fed beef and placed it on butter leaf lettuce topped with avocado, tomato and a slab of red onion. She topped it off with pickles sansyellow dye No. 5 and a dollop of raw ketchup she'd whipped up using a little raw, unprocessed honey and sundried tomatoes. "And nobody goes hungry because for dessert we're having banana cream pie." That did it for breaking down the defenses.
The second night was Italian: raw spaghetti sauce on zucchini and cooked spaghetti squash noodles. "There's always something hot, but you don't need meat every single night," said Stowers. Soon the neighbors were stopping in for show-and-tell. "Every day I turned to Hanks and asked, 'Hanks, are ya hungry?' And he'd say, 'No ma'am.' "
Stowers is a bold experimenter: if she sets out to invent a healthy Cheez-It, she goes to work replicating the orangy hue, cheddary taste and hallmark docking holes of the rectangular cracker. "My Carson Daly Cheese-It was an instant hit!" she whooped.
Recreating America's favorite foods may soon become big business for Stowers. Several of her families have been so impressed they've signed on to help with everything from packaging Stacy Doodles (raw cinnamon raisin cookies) and Mini Me's ("sweet blond cookies, like me") to distributing Happy Shake mixes. Stowers sums up her success with her mantra: "People first, then food."
You might say her tasty treats are her mantra recreated as a healthy venture.
JCC Greenwich presents a cooking demo with Stacy Stowers on October 8, 2014 at 10:30am.